A Student of Leadership and Lessons Learned


Larry Ragan, PhD, OLC Fellow, Co-Director for the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State University, and IELOL Co-Director

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In this post, guest blogger Larry Ragan, Co-Director of Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning and Co-Director of IELOL, reflects on his leadership journey, including his experience co-directing the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL).  IELOL is an annual program offered jointly between Penn State and OLC. Currently applications are being accepted for the 2017 program.

I became a part of the IELOL program on January 2 of 2009. In the hallway of the Outreach Building at Penn State I was asked by my then-boss Wayne Smutz, “Hey, we just signed an agreement with Sloan-C to offer a workshop helping the next generation of online leaders, are you interested in helping?” My response was short and confident even though I had no idea what I was getting myself into. “Yeah sure, that sounds like fun!” That response and the opportunity to learn from and work with some amazing leaders from all over the world quickly became a labor of love for the past nine years. The experience has changed me in more ways that I can count and probably even more that I am aware of!

One of the most unexpected outcomes of this engagement was my own understanding and appreciation for what leadership really means. I began a new study of style, affect, ego, personality, tactics, failures, and successes. And that was all on me! I became so much more aware of how and why I behaved the way I did when called to lead. I became more sensitive to the impact of my actions on those affected by my actions. I also extended these observations of “leadership lessons” to other aspects of my life, family, church, community, and of course, my work at Penn State and beyond.

Extending this observation of lessons learned to the ILEOL community has also provided interesting insights and case studies. My biggest revelation is that there is no one model for effective leadership. Our styles, methods, and approaches to the challenges, and sometimes tasks faced by leaders, is influenced at so many levels by many variables. Our leadership response (as I like to refer to it) is completely dependent upon the context of the challenge. Understanding and navigating the culture and politics of that context makes our response all the more interesting!

My second biggest lesson in leadership I actually learned as a rookie high school teacher but was reminded of years later in a leadership context. I was fortunate in my first high-school assignment to be paired with an incredible role model experienced teacher of the highest integrity. Dave possessed a rapport with his students and commanded such respect that I decided if I emulated Dave’s style I too would gain what he had. The truth of the matter was that Dave and I were very different people. When I attempted to “reflect” Dave’s style or approach I failed miserably. The students were confused and I was struggling to find my voice. It was not until later upon reflection and an honest assessment (and Dave’s guidance) did I realize that, for better or worse, I needed to be me, Dave was already taken. That was the only way I would be happy and ultimately become the teacher I was meant to be.

As we begin the process for planning for the ninth offering of IELOL, the class of 2017, I am again excited to observe, learn, grow, and contribute in order to add to my list of leadership lessons learned! Each year as we review the previous years program we make adjustments to the program. New faculty, updated and new content domains, more engagement activities, and of course a fresh cohort of leaders, some emerging and some arrived all contribute to make each year “the best ever!” All participants arrive willing to embark on an intense learning experience resulting in an incredible new network of global colleagues, a recognition of the scope and scale of digital learning, and hopefully their own revelations of how to become the best leader they can be in order to positively impact learning. In the end, that remains the goal of all leaders in higher education.

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